Sunday, May 23, 2010


I just read Karen Armstrong's A History of God and it is going right onto my to-be-re-read pile. I knew it would be going there when I was only about a third of the way through the book. I was standing in a crowded subway car reading. At the stop before mine a woman who had been sitting across from me got up to leave, saying “that's a great book.” I agreed, telling her that it had got me thinking in new ways about the history of religion. She said that she wanted to read it again. I told her that I thought I would too.

A History of God is not, in fact, a history of God. Nor is it a history of religion, per se, but a history of the concept of God as considered by the three major Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Armstrong begins at the beginning, in the years before the concept of the one God took hold. Our species has always worshiped and wondered about the spiritual matters, the world beyond our senses and the mysteries of existence. It is a defining characteristic of mankind. Built into our DNA, we are creatures that seek God.

All three faiths see Abraham as the progenitor. It was he who began to worship one God. As an old man he heard the voice of God and began to follow him and him alone. Who was this one God? The Bible tells us that Abraham did not know the sacred name of the Lord. He called him “El Shaddai.” Here Armstrong asks a question. Was El Shaddai, the God of Abraham, the same God as the one worshiped by Moses and his followers in the desert? She tells us that scholars think that El Shaddai was a local Canaanite deity.

What was so unusual about worshiping one of the many local deities? Nothing, really. What was unusual was the exclusive covenant Abraham made. He worshiped his God and his God alone. Even more radical, when he moved he and his family continued to worship his God. He refused to pay fealty to the local gods. This was the great difference, this idea that God could more universal, greater than the small regional gods all around them.

By the time of Moses God had become something wholly other. While Abraham's grandson Jacob could have a literal wrestling match with God, such a concept would have been blasphemous to the Israelites who followed Moses. God had developed into a being of such unimaginable power and majesty that He could not even be contemplated in mere human form. He would appear as flame or smoke. To look upon him was more than a man could bear. Moses, who spent time with Him, was physically changed. His face glowed with such light that he had to wear a veil so as not to cause injury to those who encountered him.

What happened to the relatively simple deity of Abraham? Had he evolved? Did he change? Of course not. But as man changes, grows, and becomes more capable, his concept of the divine changes. Armstrong traces a history of these changes, comparing and contrasting the different strains of faith and understanding in its three major expressions. It's a fascinating journey.

Recently the book has been criticized by scholar Stephen Prothero who says that Armstrong stretches to find commonalities that don't exist and ignores significant differences. This strikes me as being deliberately obtuse. Armstrong is careful to point out differences, explaining that core dogma of each faith can be seen as being blasphemous to the others. She also points out the significant splits within those faiths as different groups of people at different times followed their own path toward understanding. What is remarkably similar is the experience, as articulated by some adherents to each religion, of the ultimate, of the feeling of the divine and the sense of the numinous. Those who have have followed the paths of their faith or who have broken new ground within that faith will describe a deep, profound experience that transcends dogma. She writes that it “seems that when human beings contemplate the absolute, they have very similar ideas and experiences. The sense of presence, ecstasy, and dread in the presence of a reality—called nirvana, the ONE, Brahman or God—seems to be a state of mind and a perception that are naturally and endlessly sought by human beings.”

The faiths evolve as man grows. Some adherents follow a path of reason, others of dogma, and some of mysticism. All seem to have their place and all have enriched the history. But Armstrong is not an uncritical observer. She uses the example of St. Bernard's persecution of Abelard to demonstrate what religion can become when dogma rejects reason. She writes of the differences between the mystical, imaginative approach and the path of pure reason.

In the end I see the greatest wisdom in accepting the imaginative power of mysticism while employing reason and engaging in the centuries long conversation that is tradition.

The concept of the divine changes and grows as man himself changes and grows. Now we are in a new age, an age different from all others in history. Today, belief in God is a matter of personal choice. Faith is no longer an societal given. Each generation must create its own imaginative concept of God. God is a subjective experience; he cannot be described by a formula that is universal for all. Our concept of Him is transformed by our own personal religious experience. I wonder what the next generation's expression of the divine will say about Him. And us.

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